At a circus midway, the penniless and hungry Tramp is mistaken for a condemnable pickpocket and chased by both the police and the real crook (the latter having stashed a stolen wallet and watch in the Tramp’s pocket to avoid detection). Running away, the Tramp stumbles into the middle of a performance and unknowingly becomes the hit of the show.
The ringmaster/proprietor of the struggling circus gives him a tryout the next day, but the Tramp fails miserably. However, when the property men quit because they have not been paid, he gets hired on the spot to take their place. Once again, he inadvertently creates comic mayhem during a show. The ringmaster craftily hires him as a poorly paid property man.
The Tramp befriends Merna, a horse rider who is treated badly by her ringmaster stepfather. She later informs the Tramp that he is the star of the show, forcing the ringmaster to pay him accordingly. With the circus thriving because of him, the Tramp also is able to secure better treatment for Merna.
After overhearing a fortune teller inform Merna that she sees “love and marriage with a dark, handsome man who is near you now”, the overjoyed Tramp buys a ring from another clown. Alas for him, she meets Rex, the newly hired tightrope walker. The Tramp eavesdrops as she rushes to tell the fortune teller that she has fallen in love with the new man. With his heart broken, the Tramp is unable to entertain the crowds. After several poor performances, the ringmaster warns him he has only one more chance.
When Rex cannot be found for a performance, the ringmaster (knowing that the Tramp has been practicing the tightrope act in hopes of supplanting his rival) sends the Tramp out in his place. Despite a few mishaps, including several mischievous escaped monkeys, he manages to survive the experience and receives much applause from the audience. However, when he sees the ringmaster slapping Merna around afterward, he beats the man and is fired.
Merna runs away to join him. The Tramp finds and brings Rex back with him to marry Merna. The trio go back to the circus. The ringmaster starts berating his stepdaughter, but stops when Rex informs him that she is his wife. When the traveling circus leaves, the Tramp remains behind : he prefers to fade to allow them to be happy. Melancholic, he picks himself up and starts walking jauntily away.